- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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Here come the Olympics, when we are reminded of the unquenchable spirit of the athlete, the true fellowship of nations through sport—and the Spam-brained quality of most national anthems.
It's so sad when bad anthems happen to good countries. America, for one. Ours goes up and down so many octaves only certain German shepherds can hear all of it. Still, I've covered eight Olympics, and our anthem doesn't come close to these:
Andorra. I look forward with great zeal to the day when a 350-pound Andorran shot-putter with phone booths for arms stands on the podium and sings: "I was born a princess, a maiden!" Hey, with today's medical breakthroughs, it's possible.
Ukraine. I love it because it asks so little. The first line: "Ukraine has not perished." I call that managing national expectations: "We're not dead, okay? Give us that."
Thailand. This anthem is played each day at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. It declares, "Every inch of Thailand belongs to the Thais." Odd. Was anyone under the impression it belonged to Diddy?
Syria. Someone must have written this one in a hurry, or bought it at a discount anthem store, because it contains this verse: "A land resplendent with brilliant suns, becoming another sky, or almost a sky." I would've loved to be inside the mind of the guy who wrote that. Let's see. We have so many suns it's like a whole 'nother sky. No, wait. Nobody's going to believe that. I'll just add, "or almost a sky." Hell, what do they expect for $9.95?
Algeria. "We have taken the noise of gunpowder as our rhythm and the sound of machine guns as our melody." This is why no one invites your band anywhere.
Sweden. Here is a national anthem that has almost nothing to do with the country it honors. It's mostly about the Nordic way of life. Swedes are like that. Once, at an Olympic soccer game, I listened to Swedish fans chanting and singing. Finally, I asked one what they were urging their players to do. "The players?" she said. "We simply chant: 'We are from Sweden, we have come a long way and we are drunk!'"
China. The Chinese change their national anthem about every other Tuesday, but the latest, approved in 2004, talks about putting up a "new Great Wall!" If I'm Chinese, and I'm looking at the 4,500-mile one that took 19 centuries to build, I'm thinking, Look, we'll do a Good Wall, but Great? No way.
Australia. Aussies cannot quite decide between the stodgy, government-approved "Advance Australia Fair" or the one they really like, the folk song "Waltzing Matilda," the country's official anthem at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. It'd be like our dumping "The Star-Spangled Banner" for "Old McDonald." "Waltzing Matilda" is all about a swagman who sits under a coolibah watching his billy, then drowns himself in a billabong to avoid a squatter. And who doesn't love a story like that?
Russia. Another country that has gone through more national anthems than Amy Winehouse has rehabs. The latest, adopted in 2000 by order of then-president Vladimir Putin, goes like this: "Russia, our homeland, most beautiful of all nations, sing it loud or you'll farm icicles in Siberia rest of days." (Okay, I made that up.)
Mexico. Legend has it, this one was written by a poet whose fiancée locked him in a room of her parents' house and wouldn't let him out until all 10 verses were done. If ever there were a guy who needed to throw in a few "or almost a sky" lines, it was him.
Greece and Cyprus have the same anthem, which goes for 158 verses. Olympic officials dread Greeks or Cypriots winning gold. Last time it happened, three trombone players were hospitalized.
The national anthem of Spain is easy to learn. It contains no words. Don't you wish the same could be said of Imus?
And here's a cool fact: Afghanistan's anthem was banned during the reign of the Taliban. Now it's back.
Along the way, of course, we will also admire great anthems. Hate to admit it, but France's "La Marseillaise" is very good. Remember how it drowned out the Nazis in Casablanca? Then again, these are the people who decided snails were lunch.
The best, though, is Great Britain's "God Save the Queen." For catchiness it ranks only slightly behind "It's a Small World (After All)." Maybe this is why countries like Germany, Switzerland and Liechtenstein have ripped off the tune over the years, changing nothing but the lyrics. Nobody's owed any royalties, though, because to this day no one is really sure who wrote it.
Maybe the guy's fiancée locked him up.
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My favorite Olympic sport? Translating anthems.